It’s Tuesday, must be Jackson

After a few days travelling I can now tell you for sure that Turkey is a wonderful country but that Dalaman airport is an appalling money grubbing hole of an airport (nescafe about £3.50, disgusting stale bread sandwich about £6) which makes Heathrow’s terminal 1 (Cafe Nero double esspresso £1.70 and toasted mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil panini £3.40) look like a very nice place to relax and wait for your flight. I can also tell you that Chicago O Hare airport is still a confused mess of over zealous security and passport control that somehow lacks the management ability to staff the numerous unused xray machines and border control desks to avoid the whole place being constantly crammed with people standing around in lines trying to go somewhere.

The Masai Mara already seems like ages ago, but finally we’ve had time to asses the results. Amazing. The new starlight camera IS the sharpest, most sensitive image intensified camera ever built. Some movie clips in due course.

Before our departure for the main lion shoot later in October, the biennial Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is upon us once more, and here I am to meet up with old friends, get some new projects funded as well as cheer on ‘Smalltalk Diaries Changelings’ which is up for ‘best short film’ award tomorrow night - against some stiff competition.


Return to Blighty

After three weeks we headed home, having finally filmed some stunning baboon material for BBC's forthcoming 'Rift Valley' series, identified some serious technical and ergonomic problems in our new Starlight and thermal cameras, and saw more clearly than ever the true nature of lion nocturnal hunting behaviour.

We now have just 3 weeks to get engineering underway, go on holiday, as well as go to Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival before heading back to the plains for what is predicted to be an extremely wet October. I hope not.

Rain on the Plain

Rain in the Mara usually comes in the form of localised storms that build up in the afternoon and evening. Look around the hilltops just befire sunset and you’ll see small columns of rain over several of them, or huge grey curtains covering portions of the sky, with the setting sun peeking between them. The Mara’s numerous lone, gnarled trees offer a fantastic point of focus in this massive landscape.

As the torrential rain arrives, all the grazing animals stop moving and turn with their backs to the wind, zebras, gazelles and wildebeeste all aligned in the same direction. Is it because they don’t like driving rain in their faces or because they want water to penetrate their backward facing fur and clean it? I’ve yet to hear a convincing explanation of this universal behaviour. Twenty minutes later, it’s over, and twenty mm of refreshment has covered an area of only fifty square kilometres. In three days time, the wildebeeste will come from far and wide reap the benefits.

Lions love this kind of weather. It always makes them active, and full or not, ready for a hunt. This was one of the main reasons for our trip, to see what lions actually do at night, and we weren’t disappointed.

We had three more fantastic evenings with the lions, doing what they seem to normally do on dark moonless nights - bumbling around chasing stuff and every now and again actually bumping into animals and killing them.

It’ is now, finally clear, that without moonlight, lions can’t see their prey at any distance any more than the grazing animals can see the lions. Detection of each other now depends almost entirely on smell and hearing. All the lions have to do is be very quiet - but then, most of the prey animals do the same. They stop moving and sit down to chew their cuds. Which has given us incredible images of lions stalking right past their victims - all of them unaware of each other.

For more information on Mara lions check out the Mara Predator Project website


Lions and Cows

We have begun to learn the truth about rampant cattle grazing in the Mara.

The day before yesterday we (me on camera, Stanley on driving) watched some female lions sleeping peacefully as Masai cow bells and voices approached. The cows passed on the other side of the lugga* - and the lions paid no attention at all – then we heard the bell of a single cow trotting after the main herd. The lions leapt into action and hurried after it, behind the bushes. An outsider lioness also arrived, the lionesses had a bit of a spat and the cow escaped.

Later on, we saw some hyenas attacking a wildebeest, oblivious to the nearby Masai and cattle, some lions arrived on the scene commandeering the wildebeest that the hyenas had yet to bring down.

Last night we watched through our thermal camera as The Masai brought their herds closer and closer to where some lions were lounging around in the grass, the lions simply ignored them. We showed the footage to the Masai later, who had been completely unaware of the presence of 5 lions. Between looking at the cattle and sleeping, the lions chased a few hyenas and generally gave the impression that it was business as usual on Paradise plain.

The biggest question that remains is to what extent the cattle grazing damages or enhances the environment. And when the rain will relieve the pressure, and allow these
huge herds to go home.

*Mara term for ditch


Night Rights

Finally we get the news we have been waiting for - that we can film off-road at night in the main Mara reserve - having paid quite a lot of money for the privilege (which it truly is).

Twelve years ago when we made Mara Nights here, we went all over, into what is now the Olare Orok Conservancy, the Aitong conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy as well as the Mara itself. Today, each area requires different permissions, different fees, and has different levels of 'allowed’ land usage, from light grazing to the building of permanent settlements. Further to the North, this also means ploughing the land and planting wheat.

Most National Parks exist simply because nobody could find another use for the land. The Mara is exceptional as it occupies prime agricultural land, and as such is really only secure as long as it earns more money through tourism than if it was converted to wheat. The areas surrounding the Mara are under imminent threat, and this has galvanised various organisations and alliances of tourist operators and land owners to create what is in effect a series of secure buffer zones and extensions of the bigger reserve.

There is however a problem. Cattle. This year has seen the driest drought in Kenya for 70 years. The Mara has the only remaining grass in Kenya (much of the best of the rest having been ploughed and planted). Estimates vary in the total number of cows that have been brought here from elsewhere, anything from 40,000 to 100,000, all grazing wherever they can – dodging wardens by going at night. Whether or not this grazing is bad for the plains and wildlife is hard to say. Generally, areas which cattle have grazed have shorter grass, which is what the wildebeest, gazelles and zebras like anyway, so these animals are often to be found among the cattle. But on the other hand, the number of people wandering around the reserve and surrounds has now got to the point that many of the predators have changed their behaviour and become more nocturnal or moved on altogether. And some areas have now been overgrazed to the point that they are just bare dirt waiting for rain.

Last night we watched as hyenas watched an advancing wall of cattle hundreds of bells ringing, Masai whistling commands, torches flashing. The hyenas took it in their stride and melted away when people came near. It’s a very complicated situation, but the will seems to be there on all sides to solve it, and keep that Mara largely as it is - the most incredible and beautiful place for wildlife I know of.


Beautiful Baboons

This is a multi purpose trip to the Mara. We need to test the latest starlight camera, find the best areas for our next lion film trip, try and understand the new boundary, political and rule changes around the Mara – and film some baboons.

Not the world’s most popular monkey, despised by many and unappreciated by most, the baboons here have been a revelation. Unable to film our first choice group until next week (because of politics), we have gone into the Olare Orok Conservancy on the Northern edge of the Mara reserve. The best group we could find has been grudgingly trusting – as long as we stay more than 50 metres away – and has routinely dragged us into rock fields or made us cross the same dry river 5 times in an hour.

But these baboons are true savannah monkeys. They don’t visit any lodge rubbish tips or Maasai settlements. They live entirely on the plains by their wits. And they seem to be very happy despite the dryness. Bickering and fighting are rare, while grooming and general niceness to other members of the group seems to be the norm. Loads of babies are always running about jumping on each other, while the big males perform sentinel duty at the edge of the group. Two nights running, they’ve chosen a beautiful open branched fever tree for roosting after prolonged social mucking about in the nearby river channel. I had no idea baboons were such nice and interesting monkeys